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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

The Atlantic ventures into new digital waters

November 21, 2019 | By Erik Martin—Independent Journalist @Martinspired

When you’ve been in the publishing business since 1857, you can rightfully say that you’ve learned a thing or two about longevity and how to make a product continually appealing to ever-changing consumers. The key to maintaining that allure today, apparently, is to make things look simple without losing your sophistication. For The Atlantic, that means taking an A-to-Z approach, beginning – literally – with a capital “A” and ending with a close eye on Gen Z, your future readers.

Investing in growth

To better compete for eyeballs in an increasingly digital world, the publication recently undertook a significant redesign of its magazine, website, and iOS app and rolled out a new digital subscription service. To support these initiatives, the brand made several prominent new hires, including creative director Peter Mendelsund, senior art director Oliver Munday, and director of photography Luise Stauss. And over the past year, the product, engineering, and growth teams were doubled.

The results so far have been promising. September and October both drew record numbers of subscribers—more than double the number of subscriptions and revenue originally forecast. The website now tallies 30 million unique visits monthly and the magazine boasts a paid circulation of 500,000. And in the five days following the redesign rollout, The Atlantic had twice the number of subscribers daily, on average, as there were in the same period before the redesign.

New look, same savvy

Readers who visit the website or use the app today will likely take instant note of the streamlined design and sparse template at work. A bold red “A” logo has replaced the title’s previous iconic emblem. The words stand out consistently in a clean new custom typeface. Clustered or crowded content is a thing of the past thanks to a generous infusion of white space. And the top navigation bar is a simplified element better served by a hamburger menu icon in the upper left corner.

But what hasn’t changed, insists Adrienne LaFrance, executive editor of The Atlantic, is the quality writing, diversity of content, and journalistic integrity. “The way we will continue to stay competitive is by showing people how we are different than other publications—reminding them of our extraordinary writing, unmatched narrative journalism, beautiful design, and photography,” she says.

“Were lucky because we have a really differentiated and highly valuable product that people already love and have loved for a long time. But it was time for a redesign, with a focus on giving people the best possible user experience and helping them get to the best of our work even more easily.”

Mobile matters

First introduced in 2011, the improved iOS app (plans are afoot to launch an Android version) is designed to function as a compact version of the print magazine while retaining the cleanly legible look and unconstrained feel of the website. A dedicated editorial team exclusively manages the app, which has more carefully curated and diverse offerings for subscribers, thanks in large part to its Today feed.

“The Today feed walks the reader through what’s happening but gives them deeper context behind the news – stitching together the larger patterns so people can derive meaning from the day’s events. There’s a narrative arc there, not just a list of bullet points or headlines. There’s definite value for people who want to come away with a complete and rich sense of what’s going on in the world and why it matters,” LaFrance explains. “You can choose how deeply you want to delve into the feed, whether you want to read every single story or browse through it. The app and entire feed are free. Where you encounter the need to subscribe is when you click through to a particular article.”

LaFrance notes that the app and website are two distinctly different products. The mobile experience is focused on making it simple to brush up on the news of the day and discover articles of interest to on-the-go users.

“We want to respect people’s time and intelligence, and we understand that there are so many different options for getting information and reading. We know people come to The Atlantic for extraordinary journalism. And we want to make it easy and delightful for them to experience our stories,” she adds.

While she couldn’t yet disclose numbers post-revamp, LaFrance says that, historically, The Atlantic’s mobile app audience was a fraction of its overall digital audience. Previously, “in any given week, about three-quarters of subscribers who used our existing app came three-plus times per week,” she notes.

New routes to revenue

Simplifying the subscription model was another priority. Now, readers can opt from three tiers:

  • Digital ($50 annually, which includes unlimited access to TheAtlantic.com, the iOS app, digital issues, and a subscriber-only newsletter);
  • Print and digital ($60 a year, which comes with the aforementioned plus delivery of 10 print issues); and
  • Premium ($100 annually, for all of the above goodies plus exclusive access to podcasts, ad-free web browsing, a complimentary digital gift subscription, Atlantic product discounts, and priority access to exclusive events).

Subscriptions and print advertising serve as complementary pieces of the monetization pie (comprising approximately 20% of revenue). However, the lion’s share comes from digital advertising (45%). The remainder is derived from various sources, including live events (like The Atlantic Festival, Future of Work seminar, and Aspen Ideas Festival 2020).

“It’s actually a wonderful time to be a publisher because the incentives for the highest-quality journalism and what journalists want to make are aligned with what readers are willing to pay for. So, we can be incredibly ambitious knowing that the highest quality product is what people will want to subscribe to,” LaFrance says. “I think one of the reasons The Atlantic has remained so urgent and relevant for 162 years is that we’ve been really aggressive about diversifying revenue and one of the first media companies to demonstrate extraordinary skill in the live event space.”

That’s not to say the waters won’t be choppy ahead.

“This is an intensely competitive environment. That’s not just among publications and magazines but in the way people spend their time nowadays – from Netflix to TikTok to Instagram to news organizations. There is no other publication out there like The Atlantic, and that’s why we’re having so much success with our subscriptions,” she continues. “But the key for us going forward is making people understand what makes us special.”

Eye on the horizon

LaFrance, who joined the company in 2014 and served as its website editor for years, lives by an important credo: Nothing is guaranteed, especially in the world of digital publishing.

“No publication has a right to survive. You have to really serve your readers. That means doing the best quality work and finding the places where your readers are so that they can connect with your journalism, fall in love with it, and keep coming back.”

While mum on the details, LaFrance hinted that other exciting changes are coming soon to The Atlantic’s digital offerings. Right now, her team is focused on further perfecting the digital user’s experience and gauging reaction to the redesigns.

“We’ve done a lot of audience research and looked closer at how people are finding our stories, what they like, and what they are excited about on our site. All of that has been factored into our editorial thinking process. So far, the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, almost to the point where we’re waiting to learn what we can do better.”

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